Andrew Romanoff, former speaker of the state House and a once rising political star, wants to be a U.S. senator. And there’s nothing Governor Ritter, the state Democratic Party establishment, or the White House can do about it. If he costs his party the big one and torpedoes his career along the way, well, that’s democracy.
By his late 20s, Romanoff had quietly begun laying the groundwork for a political career of his own. He starting hanging out at Barrys Bingo on South Federal Boulevard on Democratic Party nights, where the faithful raised money with bingo and scratch-off tickets. Romanoff would pull the tickets from the big pickle jar; eventually, he "graduated" from the pickle jar to become the bingo caller.
In 1996, at 29, Romanoff earned a seat on the state's seven-member delegation to the Democratic National Committee, the governing body of the national party. Four years later, he went local, running for an open Statehouse seat representing southeast Denver. Romanoff spent days and evenings banging on doors and giving speeches.
Easily elected, he was a fresh-faced young idealist in a room full of middle-aged lawyers and businessmen. Within two years, he was chosen as the Democrats' minority leader. He had a stroke of good luck when Alice Madden, a political whiz, was chosen as the caucus chair. "[Romanoff] and Alice Madden were the perfect political and policy team," says Travis Berry, a friend of Romanoff's and a longtime Denver lobbyist. "Alice focused on caucus politics and Romanoff on the policy and legislation strategy." Riding the momentum of a political movement financed by the wealthy Gang of Four—heiress Pat Stryker and businessmen Jared Polis, Tim Gill, and Rutt Bridges—Madden and Romanoff toppled the Republicans in both the state House and Senate in 2004, giving the Democrats the majority for the first time since the Kennedy administration. Romanoff became the youngest speaker of the House in Colorado's history.
Despite the Democrats' advantage in the Legislature, the governor was Republican Bill Owens. If Romanoff wanted to get anything done, he had to work across the aisle. He tackled the role with pragmatism. "I never heard anyone complain that he was treating the minority party unfairly," says Rob Witwer, a former Republican representative. "I didn't always agree with Andrew on policy issues, but I always respected that he was sincere and thoughtful."
That same thoughtfulness made him reluctant, as a 2010 Senate candidate, to get involved in the White House job offer controversy. On June 2, with the Sestak-triggered scandal reaching a fever pitch in the media, Romanoff finally released the Obama administration's e-mail offering him one of three positions if he wasn't running for Senate: deputy assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean for USAID; the director of the USAID's office of democracy and governance; and the director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. They were exactly the kind of positions that Romanoff might've taken if they'd been offered earlier.
The release of the e-mail amounted to, as Ben Smith headlined his Politico story, "Romanoff's middle finger." Smith wrote that Romanoff's release of the e-mail "does some real damage to the White House, showing governance at its most transactional. But it's also a sign of something else: How little Establishment Democrats like Romanoff fear the White House. It's a remarkable act of defiance."
Smith wasn't the only national political writer making Romanoff's life difficult. Less than two weeks later, in June, Romanoff got into a public tiff with one of his former Yale Daily News colleagues, Washington Post writer Dana Milbank. Milbank described Romanoff as "talented but prickly," and Romanoff responded with a long letter to the editor, calling Milbank's column "false," "misleading," and an "attempt to malign my character."